Wednesday, June 5, 2013

2 Study the Greats, Become Greater

"Study the greats and become greater." -Michael Jackson
Anyone who knows me well knows that I consider myself to be a bit of an impressionist. Since elementary school, I'd perform impressions of my friends, teachers, family members and even celebrities.

Now I'm not saying that I'm the next Robin Williams or anything, but this skill has always fascinated many people.

How I developed this was through years of studying people. I watch what they say, how they say it, their distinctive body language, how they walk, how they laugh, etc.

Yet, as I grew older, I learned to study much more than people's body language and their idiosyncrasies. Whenever I looked up to someone or admire a quality about them, I started to learn about their life, what they went through, how they handled it and what qualities made them so successful at their craft.

Then, I'd emulate the qualities which made those people successful and apply them toward my life. I'd also study their techniques and their style. 

For example, when I decided to try my hand at acting last year in a college play, without even realizing it, I'd sometimes find myself trying to emulate the acting styles of successful actors like Denzel Washington, Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando.

When I performed in a comedic musical the next semester, I realized that a great deal of my comedic style was based off of things which I picked up from comedians Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, and George Carlin.

When I hosted talent show on campus, my performace as a host was largely based on the style of late night talk show hosts, Johnny Carson and Conan O'Brien, as well as that of comedian Martin Lawrence when he hosted Def Comedy Jam in the early 90s. 

Even the way that I write is based upon the the works of countless different journalists and authors which I've read throughout my life. 

The point is that in studying great people, there's nothing wrong with emulating certain things which made them great. Of course, you don't want to be an imitation of other people or a plagiarizer, but you can use the styles of other people as a template for developing your own style. 

Look no further than Michael Jackson. We all know he's the "King of Pop" and one of, if not THE greatest musical artist to ever live.

But what few people realize is that Michael was also a student of great entertainers. Everything which made Michael Jackson distinctive was largely influenced by others.

The way that he danced was influenced by entertainers such a Sammy Davis Jr., Cab Calloway and James Brown. Even his signature dance move "The Moonwalk" was a dance that dancers were doing since the days of 1940s vaudeville performances.

Just watch a little bit of this video to see what I mean:  

Even things such as his vocal style and his ad libs were based off of other people. His "vocal hiccup" style of singing was used by artists such as Elvis Presley and Diana Ross.  

His "chamone" (slang for "come on") ad lib, heard in songs like "Bad", was borrowed from Staples Singers vocalist, Mavis Staples.

What we have to realize is that emulating other people a part of life. As babies, we learn to walk and talk largely from watching and listening to the people around us. 

Hell, even the whole basis of this post is based off of things I read in Austin Kleon's book, "Steal Like an Artist"... 

...which I highly recommend, by the way.

So get out and learn from the people you admire, understand their strengths, their weaknesses, and also learn to understand what makes you different from them.

That way, we too can become great.

"I'm all about studying people... And I if find any great man, black or white, I'm gonna study him, learn about him, so he can't be great to me anymore." -Tupac Shakur


  1. Sorry, but first time I have observed anyone has including Elvis Presley with Diana Ross regarding the "Hiccup" style. Never noticed anything like that with Elvis Presley and MJ sounded nothing like anything that would remind one of Elvis Presley.

    In fact, MJ clearly states that he was never influenced by Elvis Presley in his book, 'Moonwalk'.

    His idol was James Brown, and he loved Jackie Wilson, Fred Astaire, Jean Kelly, etc.

  2. Forgot to say that MJ noticed black street kids doing what was the backslide and approached them - ask them to show him - practiced at home and enhanced it to make it his own. He also talks about this and credits those kids, in his book, 'Moonwalk'


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